Afghan Poll Date Depends on Creating Voting Districts, UN Says

By Paul Tighe

Afghanistan's government won't set a date for parliamentary and local elections until voting districts are established, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said. ``There is no earliest date'' for the elections, Ariane Quentier, said yesterday at a briefing in the capital, Kabul, according to the UN Web site.

 The election will take place ``according to the electoral law, 120 days after the district boundaries have been announced by presidential decree.''

The voting system still has to be approved and the registration of voters completed, Quentier said. Under the election law, allocation of seats in the lower house of the national assembly must be completed 90 days before the poll.

Afghanistan's move to democracy began with last October's first direct presidential election, won by Hamid Karzai, who served as interim president after the Taliban regime was ousted in December 2001. The UN said last month national elections were scheduled to take place between April 21 and May 21. ``Maybe we were a little too optimistic believing that things could be done fast,'' Quentier said. ``It is just one step after the other.''

The Independent Electoral Commission, appointed by Karzai on Jan. 19, is working to resolve the outstanding issues, Quentier said. ``It takes time,'' she said. ``It is a complex process.''

The registration process has been complicated because people have turned 18 years of age since the Oct. 9 presidential poll, more refugees have returned to the country and the voting rights for nomadic tribes need to be addressed, Quentier said.

The electoral system of a single non-transferable vote is also being challenged by some political parties that favor more proportional representation, she said.

Afghan Aid

Afghanistan needs at least $120 million from international donors to help the country hold the parliamentary and local elections this year, UN envoy Jean Arnault said last month.

The cost of the polls will increase by $30 million if the estimated 3 million Afghan refugees living in neighboring Pakistan and Iran take part, Arnault told the Security Council.

Two decades of civil war and drought in Afghanistan produced the world's largest refugee population of 3.5 million people, most of whom fled to Pakistan and Iran. Afghans have returned to the country under a UN program since 2001.

About 850,000 Afghan refugees voted in Pakistan and Iran in the Oct. 9 presidential election. Karzai, 46, won the election with 55.5 percent of the vote. About 8 million of the 10.5 registered Afghan voters took part.

NATO Forces

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization said yesterday it will expand its peacekeeping force in Afghanistan by about 900 soldiers to boost security for the elections.

The troops will join about 8,500 soldiers from the 26-nation NATO already in Afghanistan, allowing the force to extend control beyond the area surrounding Kabul, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said after a meeting of alliance defense ministers in Nice, France.

The move will restore the NATO force in Afghanistan to the 10,000-strong peak reached in October.

The U.S. has 18,000 soldiers in Afghanistan hunting fugitives from the ousted Taliban regime and the al-Qaeda terrorist network. The Afghan National Army, created since 2001, has more than 21,000 soldiers, 17,800 of them trained and 3,400 still in training, the U.S. military command said last month.

The national police force will have 37,000 officers by April, an increase from 32,000 personnel now serving, Arnault said in his report to the Security Council.